1 April 2009

Computing in healthcare

By Dr Henry Lee Seldon

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

A university of technology focuses strongly on technologies. Swinburne is, as we know, one such university. So does that have anything to do with healthcare? Of course it does. Go into any large hospital today, and you will see lots of technology. There are at least computers at the reception, on the wards, at the cashier’s counter and so on, and that does not even include the extraordinarily complex imaging equipment available today or the computers which run the laboratory machines to analyze your blood samples. That technology was not always there, but in the past couple of decades people have created it, installed it and run it. Nowadays top quality healthcare would not be possible without it.

So, the people at Swinburne’s School of Computing and Design are working closely with healthcare institutions such as the Sarawak General Hospital (SGH), the Primary Care Doctors Organization of Malaysia and others. For example, one Masters student is applying advanced data-mining technology to discover if there are hidden insights buried in mountains of clinical data from SGH. Could there be somewhere in that data an indication of why some people suffer heart attacks but other similar people do not? Maybe when you scan all of the data you might find some information about this, but to scan mountains of data you need information technology, so this is where computing experts come into the picture.

Another example involves communications between computers. For example, if you go to a clinic for a health checkup, they will type in your name, IC number and lots of other data into their computer. If you go somewhere else for a health problem, the same thing happens all over again. Wouldn’t it be better if you just had to give this information one time, and every time after that you only had to say “here is where my information is located”? Or what if you or a friend or relative fell suddenly seriously ill, and you were nowhere near your usual doctor? What if the first doctor you could find had no way of quickly and reliably discovering whether you had been treated for such a problem before, or if so exactly what the treatment had been? The solution to such problems would be much easier if all the computer systems in healthcare could communicate with one another using a common language, just as we use English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin or some other common language. So Swinburne’s School of Computing and Design is becoming involved in an international project to do just that – to help various healthcare computer systems communicate effectively with one another. These are not just academic exercises, but real systems being used in healthcare facilities in countries around the world. And much of the drive behind these systems comes from universities around the world.

Wherever you go nowadays you will see computers and people using computers. Healthcare is just one example, but it is an example where there is still a lot of work to do. The problem has been that healthcare deals with people, unlike manufacturing, and people are very complex, so healthcare information technology ends up being very complex. Remember the data-mining example above? It is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack – looking for a subtle hint about diet, lifestyle, genetics or something else which gives your heart a gentle nudge towards health (or maybe disease). The IT Sherlock Holmes has to also understand these things, or he has to have some good friends who do. The people who work in healthcare IT are people who like people, not just machines.

What you do not see when you visit a hospital are the many people behind the scenes – the people who build the computers, the people who install the computers, the people who write the operating systems which run the computers, the people who write the special software for particular applications, and even the people who train the final users on how to use the computers and the software.

Did you ever think that there are writers who write the user manuals or the technical documentation, or even designers who design both the computer boxes and even the packaging? Information technology actually involves many different types of people with many different interests or kinds of expertise. If you study IT at university, you do not just learn about plugging boards together or writing software; you also learn about how to use IT in the “real world” to solve problems, to help people. Or if you are interested in health, but can’t stand the sight of blood, you can still contribute to improving healthcare through IT.

Dr Henry Lee Seldon is Acting Head of the School of Computing and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at hseldon@swinburne.edu.my.